Scott MacKay Commentary: Providence's Dysfunctional City Council

May 5, 2017

The Providence City Council has been ensnared in controversy of late. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay wonders why the council is so ineffective.

The past two weeks have brought more embarrassing news to the 15-member city council in Rhode Island’s capital city. First, the council backtracked abruptly  on a police-community relations initiative that appeared a done deal just days before. Then, voters in Ward 3 recalled Kevin Jackson, the longest serving council member, in a special election so lopsided he couldn’t even get 10 percent of the vote.

The council meets in the ornate chambers in Providence’s Beaux-Arts City Hall, but they don’t do much of anything meaningful to tackle the serious issues facing our historic but financially-struggling largest city. They seem best at showing up for neighborhood meet-and-greets and handing each other congratulations.

And there is the whiff of corruption that spews from a building that has witnessed far too much bad behavior in recent times. Jackson was ousted from office because he refused to step down after his indictment on charges of stealing from a youth sports organization he founded and converting $12,000 from his campaign fund to personal use.

Council President Luis Aponte, a serial campaign finance scoff-law, is now subject of a state police investigation. He accumulated nearly $50,000 in fines by failing for years to file the campaign spending reports required of elected officials.

It’s members who too often act like parish priests, caring more about their neighborhoods than the larger issues facing the city. A case in point: The inability to approve a $40 million program to repair city streets and sidewalks, even though voters approved the spending by more than 80 percent of the vote.

Now, despite months of hearings and time to deliberate, the council has pulled back from an ordinance designed to smooth police-community relations. The council gave the so-called Community Safety Act preliminary approval, then put it on hold after complaints from the police union and the city’s well-regarded police chief, Col. Hugh Clements.

However you stand on this prickly issue, you have to ask why it came to this? Why didn’t the council engage in serious negotiations with Clements and union representatives before giving preliminary approval? It seems like another failure of leadership.

Community activists have complained about, among other elements, racial profiling by cops. That seems a reasonable concern, giving that racial profiling has long been a stain on law-enforcement in Providence and across the nation. But some provisions of the proposal seem like foolish overreach, such as putting community members between labor and management in contract negotiations, which appear to violate state labor law.

Mayor Jorge Elorza had committed to signing the community safety ordinance had it reached his desk, so it appears that he, too, was in the dark about the council’s intent.

There are larger challenges facing Providence that the council never tackles. Foremost is the city employee pension liability, a ticking time bomb that threatens, city finances. Not to mention the costly health care benefits for retired city employees.

The council seemed out of the loop on a plan to allow the city to harvest some money by reorganizing the Providence Water Supply Board, which runs the Scituate Reservoir and supplies 60 percent of the state with some of the nation’s best drinking water. A plan was sent to the State House and was immediately declared dead by House Speaker Nick Mattiello, D-Cranston. Why didn’t the council talk to Providence reps and senators before this was sent to Smith Hill?

Then there is the downtown smoking ban. Are the police really supposed to waste their time enforcing this nonsense?

Maybe it’s time to go back to the future. There was a time in the 1980s, after Buddy Cianci was forced out of office the first time, when the council actually thought about the entire city. Joe Paolino was mayor and council members such as council president Nick Easton and members Carolyn Brassil, Dave Dillon, Tom O’Connor, Tom Glavin, and Malcolm `Mac’ Farmer III worked together for betterment of the city. They represented diverse neighborhoods but acted in concert.

Or roll the reel back to Mayor Angel Taveras and then-City Council President Mike Solomon. They hailed from vastly different backgrounds and political legacies, but worked together well to keep the city from tipping into receivership. This council does reflect the city’s diversity, from Sam Zurier, a Rhodes Scholar lawyer who represents College Hill to Wilbur Jennings, a former Parks Department employee who years ago was made to clean toilets at Roger Williams Park after he offended Democratic Statehouse poohbahs.

It would be great if council members got the message from the Jackson recall. Voters are sick of politicians who skirt the law and only show up around election time.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:45 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.orG